'The Master' showcases masterful storytelling

atomictown.comSeptember 20, 2012 

There are now -- including The Master -- just six Paul Thomas Anderson movies. Some are better than others, but all are very, very good.

Anderson fans wait for them. One reason we anticipate his movies is because he knows when you don't have anything to say, it's best not to say anything at all.

That may be the reason Anderson has not done a movie since 2007's There Will be Blood. Less, as they say, is more -- and often -- better.

Loosely modeled on Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard, The Master is set during and after World War II and into the 1950s. Joaquin Phoenix is troubled drifter Freddie Quell. He wanders into the life of Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Dodd is the driving force behind the quasi-religious movement The Cause. Via a book, lectures and personal communication, Dodd uses subtle mind-control techniques to establish control over followers and, of course, to get cash and other contributions from them.

The relationship of Quell and Dodd is strange. Quell is a total headcase. He's an alcoholic who brews his own concoctions. He's also paranoid, likely a borderline schizophrenic and very violent. Dodd is a master manipulator and supplies a sea of calm for the chaotic Freddie.

Rounding out the cast's "name" stars are Amy Adams and Laura Dern. Adams steps out of her stereotypical goody-two-shoes character and does Dodd's hardcore, less-than-dutiful wife. Dern plays an avid disciple whose questions toward the end of the film provide an important purpose.

All of Anderson's projects generate award-nomination buzz. The Master is no exception. Best picture. Best director. Best actors and so on. So far, Phoenix is getting the loudest accolades. He's so immersed in the character that it almost seems as if he's not acting.

Hmmmm. Maybe he isn't.

Basically doing the character from in his mock career meltdown and largely ignored documentary I'm Still Here, Phoenix is phenomenal as the self-destructive Freddie. War horrors seen and experienced are the excuse for his alcoholism, but in reality, Freddie is a born loser. While not really wanting salvation or a savior, something about Dodd draws him to the man and keeps him there.

It's easy to see why.

The charismatic Dodd is a good guy. He's patient, kind, not openly self-serving and makes each person believe they are the most special person in the world. It's a pitch-perfect picture of a cult leader. Dodd is difficult not to follow. He's polished and perfectly coiffed, yet beneath the toothy smile is something rotten. Dead. Scary. You know something's wrong with Dodd, but pinning down exactly what and where is tough.

Yes, he's a slime ball, but Hoffman, who is never better than when playing this type of character, makes Dodd impossible not to like.

However, the real master behind The Master is Anderson. With deep dialogue and multi-dimensional characters, The Master is an absorbing, mesmerizing and often troubling piece of storytelling. Anderson never judges his characters or questions their motives or actions. He merely allows them to act as if life unfolds around them. You get to decide.

Brilliant is an overused adjective when describing films, but this one is. The Master truly is a masterpiece.

Mr. Movie rating: 5 stars

Writer/director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Laura Dern

Rated R for mature themes, nudity, language. It's playing at Regal's Columbia Center 8.

5 stars to 4 1/2 stars: Must see on the big screen

4 stars to 3 1/2 stars: Good film, see it if it's your type of movie.

3 stars to 2 1/2 stars: Wait until it comes out on DVD.

2 stars to 1 star: Don't bother.

0 stars: Speaks for itself.

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